Monday, September 2, 2013

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Every experienced researcher knows that sometimes it's good to step back from her research, especially if she's hit a brick wall, so she can come back to it in the future with a fresh eye or when more records become available. In my case, the latter allowed me to punch through a brick wall...again.

More than four years ago, I discovered an extract from the 1897 Russian Census for my father's paternal grandmother Sarah Klein. She was born in Lomza, Poland in 1883, daughter of Abram Jdzk Zejburski and Pesza Brajna Okuniewski. This 2009 discovery also came after a break from my research on that branch of the family tree. Once I discovered this record, I was able to fill in a large portion of the Zejburski branch, including coming forward to the present and making contact with a living cousin. Unfortunately, the Okuniewski branch remained a mystery until recently. Back in 2009, a search of the JRI-Poland database resulted in only a few records for the surname Okuniewski, none of which I could tie to my family.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take another shot at my Okuniewski research. I searched the JRI-Poland database first, because without more records, I'd really have no other place to go. To my surprise, there are now many more birth, marriage, and death records for Okuniewski in the town of Nowogrod, Poland, the town listed on the 1897 Russian Census as Pesza Brajna's place of birth. All of these records fit into my family tree. Pesza Brajna is the daughter of Jusko/Yosef Okuniewski and Sora Marja Gruszka (now I know who Sarah Klein, born Sora Marjam, was named after). I was quickly able to add thirty-five people to the family tree in both the Okuniewski and Gruszka branches, most of whom are blood relatives. Included in this total are several of my fourth and fifth great-grandparents.

As exciting as this was, I was disappointed to find that many more records are still missing. Pesza Brajna had four brothers. This is usually a good thing because it means that the family name lived on for at least one more generation. One brother died as a child, another as a young man. I don't see death records for the other two brothers, but I also don't see marriage records for them either. This means that I'm still stuck in the 19th century. I have a similar problem with the Gruszka branch...people born in the 1860s that I can't trace forward in time. I don't see any evidence that they emigrated to America, and I also don't see these surnames in the records of JewishGen's Holocaust database that can be tied back to my towns.

I'm not giving up. My patience has been rewarded several times. With the Polish State Archives records coming online with free access, I'll be able to download more records. The discoveries described above have made Sarah Klein's branch of the family tree the most populated branch in my overall family tree. This is ironic because no one in my family knows for sure when Sarah died (late 1950s in Brooklyn), or where she is buried. I guess it's time to step back...again.

Monday, March 25, 2013

In The Ghetto and In the Forest, by Iser Last

In the Ghetto and in the Forest (pages 505-511)
written by Iser Last
translated by Sharon L. Klein

The following story was written in Yiddish by Iser Last and is included in the Sefer Lukow; gehelikt der khorev gevorener kehile,The Book of Lukow; Dedicated to a Destroyed Community, published in Tel Aviv in 1968 [see for more details], pages 505-511 (missing from table of contents). Iser is my 3rd cousin, 3 times removed and I recently came into contact with his youngest son and his grandniece, both born in Israel after the war. I have translated this as best I could, without a knowledge of Yiddish, and I think I've accurately captured the details of Iser's story. Information that appears in [brackets] is not part of the original story. I have added these comments to clarify and explain some of the details mentioned by Iser.

Beginning in 1940 an order was sent by the SS to the Lukow[Łuków] Judenrat that all Jews aged 16 to 60 had to report for forced labor. If not, they would be shot along with their families.

The Judenrat appealed to the Jewish population, which along with the crowds from neighboring places now numbered 28,000 people, regarding the consequences of the German order not to flee.

One day came an order that all Jews should be at the market square at 6am. The order was carried out with the help of the Jewish Police. At 9am armed SS appeared in the market. All professionals – carpenters, locksmiths, etc – were ordered to separate. We were divided into two groups and put into two camps.

I traveled with others in overcrowded railway cars to Miedzyrzec[Międzyrzec Podlaski] and from there to Rogoźnica, 7 kilometers from Miedzyrzec. We were put in cattle stalls. The area was a German stronghold.

The next morning a fat German gave a speech to the crowds in which he explained that he had worked for 5 years in a Jewish concentration camp in Germany. If we do not perform the required work or someone tries to escape, then every last person will be shot.

The next day, the SS appointed as our leader Tsukerman, son of Nachem Tsukerman the deceased iron merchant. They divided us into two groups. We had to work from 6:30 until noon time and from 1:00 to 7:30 in the evening. We worked on a channel to connect the Bug with the Visla [two important rivers in Poland]. Some of this work had already been done by Polish criminals. While working, we were guarded by Nazis and young SS with machine guns. Small deviations from the work, even scratching one’s shoulder, could get someone shot. Those who were shot were Akiva the butcher’s son, Leibel the grandson of Tentser, and Yosef Becker, son of Kon the butcher shop owner.

The majority of the workers in the camp were from around Lukow. My brother Leybl and I, along with our children, were assigned to work with the Polish engineers so, therefore, we found ourselves not in camp but at another work location. We mainly worked with tools. Each day they took 30 Jews to work. Many times, when the group would arrive at work, the leader Tsukerman would quietly say to me, “Iser, we have 10 who are sick” or “We have in the group 5 devout Jews and a Hasidic rabbi.” Whenever we had the chance we would try to make their work easier because resting was not an option. And so we kept watch over them.

The camp was liquidated during the winter of 1941. The Germans have probably worked out a plan to finish off the Jews. After the liquidation of the camp, I returned to my home in Zalesie.

The number of Jews was increasing and the Germans issued orders for them to work. Every gentile in the village had the right to request Jewish workers from the labor office. From other Polish cities and towns came 42 Jewish boys and girls. I found out from the gentiles I know that they may legally employ these boys and girls. This was the situation until Pesach 1942.

On the morning after Pesach, we heard that Ryki was “Judenrein” – that all of the Jews were gone. They were sent to Treblinka but at that time we did not know about Treblinka and other death camps.

Kopel the baker paid a Lukow train worker to find out where the Jews of Ryki were taken a few days earlier. The train worker said that the Jews were taken to a death camp. Thus we discovered that the Jews of various cities and towns were not carried “off to work” as reported in the Minsk newspaper and as we had earlier believed but, were in fact, sent to Treblinka and other death camps.

The Jews of Lukow had been lucky, more or less. The Jews celebrated the Simchat Torah even though they had bad premonitions. After 6 nights the destruction squads came to Lukow, a beastly force to wipe out the Jews. An aktion was conducted by a branch of the SS. Next they went to Radzyn[Radzyń Podlaski] but the Gestapo had already removed all of the Jews there. 3 days later they returned to Lukow and surrounded the city. German SS, Ukrainians and Latvians were posted all around the border.

From every direction one could hear the murderers’ gunfire, in the houses, in the street. There was terrible chaos. Over a loud speaker it was ordered in Yiddish that all Jews had to report to a designated place. Everyone had to be there by 11am. In the panic of the gunfire, Jews grabbed their children and ran to the designated place. Many were shot because they were not in market square on time.

In the market square the Jews were ordered to lie face down so they could not look their murderers in the eyes. Meantime, non-Jews, police, SS, Ukrainians spread throughout the town. They went into houses and searched the floors, walls, ovens. If they found a Jew hiding, they shot them on the spot.

During the night the Jews in the market square were ordered to stand. Older people were led off to the side and shot. Other Jews were taken across the fields and led to the train station which was lit by reflective lamps.

After terrible beatings, the Jews were transported by railway cars to their final destination where they were machine gunned from the roof of the railway cars.


Here is the story of my brother-in-law Beniamin Gastman.

In the garden he prepared two bunkers. Gastman, his wife [Sura, nee Last] and son [Josef], along with several others, hid in one bunker while his daughter [Dwora Ruchle] hid in the second bunker. He divided the family intentionally so if one bunker was found, someone from the family would survive.

On the day of the aktion, Beniamin left his bunker to see if the second bunker was secure. When he saw that the second bunker had been discovered and his daughter was gone he ran to the train station to see if he could save her. A Lukower Gestapo who was drunk told him that the trains were sent to Germany.

At the train station, Beniamin found many people sitting on the ground near ramps, guarded by SS. He saw his daughter and asked the SS guard if he could take her, to save her. He decided that he would save his daughter from the railway car. Beniamin brought with him a tool used to cut iron. As soon as the train began to move he began cutting 2 openings in the car window. First to come through the opening was his daughter. She was so happy to be alive. He no longer leapt with joy though. He had broken his leg and was wounded by a bullet. As they left, many other young people also made their way out of the railway car.

Beniamin crawled on his stomach to a Polish cabin. A well-known farmer lived there and he let them stay. Early in the morning, the farmer was arrested by the Gestapo. They charged him with operating a school where some Jews worked sorting items that were left after other the Jews surrendered. Among them was Amil Gastman, Beniamin’s nephew. When he saw his uncle in the farmer's cart, he gave the farmer all the money that he had in order to save his uncle but the SS soldier shot Beniamin and ordered the farmer to take him to the Jewish cemetery.

Beniamin’s wife, my sister Sura, along with her children, including the daughter who jumped from the railway car, remained hidden until the last aktion in May 1943. During the aktion they were discovered in the bunker on Kanalave Street and were taken to the city hall where they were killed with many other Jews.


After the first aktion, notice was issued that all who had been hiding in bunkers should come to city hall where they will be “pardoned”. A ghetto will be formed again for all except Jewish workers. Many of the Jews didn’t have much energy after being in hiding and lying around but they decided to go the city hall to confirm what was happening. There they saw the person who issues the pardons. 30 Jews were exempted and sent back to the ghetto. When the others who had hidden in the bunkers and other places were captured, they were brought to city hall. Thus 640 Jews were again in the hands of the murderers. Guarded by the SS with no chance to slip away they were taken to where large graves had been dug. Everyone was ordered to undress and then they were shot. Among those killed were my brother [possibly Chaim Eli Last] and his family.

I told my daughter what had happened. She hid as a Pole in Malcanów, as a Christian girl. The gentiles had seen too many Jews killed and decided it was time to save some. My daughter found a place among these gentiles after telling them what had been happening.

The other survivors in my family managed to escape into the forest. The peasants in the village were told that they would receive 3 kilograms of sugar for each Jew they capture [3kg is approx. 6.6lbs...the value of a human life apparently]. Many gentiles went into the woods hunting for Jews. They found our shelter in the forest and reported it to the Lukow Gestapo. They were held for several days without food and drink and then they were shot.

Among my family members were 2 daughters and 2 sons, a daughter of my brother, and 3 sons of another brother. On that unfortunate evening I was away searching for food. The next evening when I returned, I immediately realized the tragedy. A Pole had warned me that something terrible had happened. I ran around desperately, not knowing where to go. Meanwhile, I found 2 of my brother’s children and together we mourned our loss.

We built a bunker in a field and stayed there until the evening before Purim 1943. Once at night we went to a local Pole to ask for bread. He suggested that we go back to the ghetto because our shelter was located in a field that would be plowed soon and it would be discovered.

On May 2 we went out looking for food and stopped at the old bunker where we still had some clothing. When we climbed down into the bunker we were surprised to see my son Tzvi and my brother’s son. We were overwhelmed with joy. We were nevertheless certain that some of the other children had been killed during the aktion at city hall. We heard that they tried to run from the murderers’ bullets. I was very proud when my son said, “Father, we will fight with all of our power to survive.”

In 1943, on the evening of Purim, we all (my brother Leybl and his 9[correction, 15] year-old daughter Yosefa, my brother’s sons, and my son and I) went back to the Lukow ghetto. There we were reminded of Pesach…they had succeeded in making Lukow “Judenrein”. So we went back to the forest.

It was a constant battle against fear for our lives with the threat of death around every corner.

On July 9, 1944 came unexpected aid. The night before we were going searching for food, we found out that tomorrow we would be liberated. The Russians were all around Lukow and Siedlce, while the Germans were still holding Brisk.

Now liberated, we returned to Lukow but neither the Jews nor the Poles knew what was happening. The city was destroyed. We were fearful that the Germans would return to Lukow so we left the city, following the Russians. We were hiding in a field near Radzyn when we found out that the Germans had finally been driven off. We returned to Lukow and found some Jewish families there.

Our small, ragged group of Jews gathered in the empty house of Gutsze Ryback. The ground was burning beneath our feet…there were Jews buried beneath us. After a while we found 2 dead bodies: a son of Joshua Prater and another Jew from Adamów. They were killed just beyond the gate.

After the creation of the Jewish State, many young Jewish people were drafted into the Israeli Army to defend the liberation. My son Tzvi joined the army and was killed in Jerusalem, in the defense of Mount Zion.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Hershel Tzvi Last - Israel Defense Forces Memorial

Hershel Tzvi Last was a hero of two wars. The first was a daily struggle for survival. The second, the battle for Israeli independence. Sadly he didn't survive the latter. Link to original.

Hershel Tzvi, my 4th cousin twice removed, was listed in the Lukow, Poland, Book of Residents as Herszko (the Polish version of his name), born June 3, 1924 (not Sept 9, 1925 as noted here...I don't know the reason for the discrepancy). His mother and three younger siblings were killed by the Nazis either in the Lukow Ghetto or at the Treblinka death camp. Hershel Tzvi survived the war in the forests with his father Isser and four 1st cousins. His twin sister Jospa/Yosefa was hidden by nuns and also survived the war.

English Translation:

Son of Miriam Bracha and Isser, was born on 14th Elul (September 9th `1925) in the town of Lukov in Poland.

In 1940 he was sent, along with his father and all the local men, to work in a Nazi labor camp.

When the order for the extermination of all Jews in the area was issued, Zvi escaped along with his entire family into the forest. Seven months later, his mother, his brothers and sisters with him were captured by the Germans and after a limited number of days in detention they were all executed. Out of intense desperation, Zvi attacked the Gestapo representative who came to execute him, knocking the gun from his hand and together with his cousins fled back into the forest and met up once again with his father.

Until 1944 they lived in the forest and participated in battles fought by the partisans. After being freed by the Red Army, Zvi joined it's ranks and also participated in the battle to occupy Berlin.

After the war, the surviving remnants of the family decided to immigrate to Israel and left for Germany their first station on their way to Israel. Two and a half years were spent in camps in Germany and only in 1948 did they manage to finally get to Israel.

On his arrival he joined the Israel Defense Forces, fought in the battle for Jerusalem and fell on the twenty-fifth of Kislev Independence (12/27/1948) in an exchange of fire on Mount Zion. He was buried on 8th of Adar B.

On the seventeenth Sivan (21/06/1951) his body was laid to rest at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

(This page is part of the National Commemoration “Yizkor”, held under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Awakening Lives

I came across Awakening Lives, edited by Jeffrey Shandler, while searching for books on Amazon. It came up in the "Customer Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section and the description caught my attention immediately. I knew this one was different.

Back in the 1930s, the YIVO Institute based in Vilna, Lithuania, held writing contests. They asked for autobiographies from young Jews so they could gain some insight into their lives during the interwar years. The contest deadlines were in 1932, 1934, and 1939. Of the more than 600 autobiographies submitted mainly by Polish Jews, about half were saved by YIVO employees when they had to evacuate their offices ahead of the German invasion. This book presents 15 of those autobiographies, translated from Polish, Hebrew, or Yiddish into English. What distinguishes this collection from other stories from Jews about their lives in Poland during this period is that these autobiographies were written before WWII. The stories wouldn't have been the same if they were told after the war, reflecting back to the years before the Holocaust.

Some of these young writers are of the same generation as my grandparents. My paternal grandparents were born in America but my maternal grandparents were born in Europe and didn't come to America until they were young adults. My grandmother was Bessie Schneider, born Peshe Bergzon in Lazdijai, Lithuania, in 1910. My grandfather was Saul Schneider, born Shlomo Sznajder, in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (now Brest, Belarus), in 1910. They came to America is 1929 and 1928, respectively. I also had many cousins/relatives who were growing up in Poland at this time. I don't even need all 10 fingers to count the names of the few who escaped the fate that the rest of their families suffered. Since I never thought to ask my grandparents about their lives when they were young, this book gave me a little insight into what their daily lives might have been like.

Peshe, #27 in the picture above and her older brother David, #26, were close in age with maybe little more than one year separating them. This is a school photo but I have no idea what type of school they attended. I believe their father, Jeruchim Bergzon, a tailor, made a pretty good living because Peshe and David still had time for school into their teens (versus having to work to earn money for the family). I don't know if they graduated but if they didn't, they must have come close. They also had time for Zionist activities including a sports club and I have many photos of David and his friends after performances by a drama club. In Awakening Lives, most of the writers attended school and did belong to Zionist or other political and labor groups. These groups sponsored camp activities during school vacations and there is mention of theatrical performances. I have no memory of my grandmother being political but her brother David, after coming to America for a few years, traveled back through Poland and Lithuania, eventually settling in Palestine in 1934. He was one of the founders of Ein Hashofet kibbutz.

My grandpa Saul, pictured here (standing, center) is a little more of a mystery. While I do have professional photos of him and his friends, they don't appear to be related to school or political organizations. I think they are simply remembrance photos as they began to leave Poland is search of better opportunities. Again, I have no memory of him being political but he died when I was 13 so I don't expect to have those types of memories.

One topic I expected to appear in these writings, especially in the ones submitted in the 1939 contest, was the mention of the tough times for Jews in Germany and possibly fear that similar problems might spread into Poland. I was surprised that the authors wrote nothing of these issues. I think there were one or two passing references to Germany or Hitler or the Nazis but that was it. Most of the writers didn't seem to think the anti-semitism in Poland had much of an impact on their daily lives. As someone who was born long after WWII, was raised in America, and has never once come face-to-face with anti-semitism I find this hard to believe but I wasn't there. Portions of these stories could have taken place just about anywhere...relationships with friends, experiences at school, sibling rivalry.

I recommend this book to anyone who had family members living in Poland during the interwar years. Some stories are difficult to read...parental abuse, extreme financial difficulties. Other stories, mainly by the young men, mention their sexual activities. We like to think that our ancestors waited until the wedding night...not true! Some of the stories end on a hopeful note which almost made me cry. According to the epilogue, of these 15 authors, only 2 are known to have survived. 2 were known to still be in Poland during the war, 1 last heard from in 1939 and another in 1943. 1 other appears in the Yizkor book for his town. That leaves 10 whose fates are not known and we can only assume the worst. Awakening Lives is definitely worth reading.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Thank You to Facebook...again

Facebook isn't exciting, it's just become part of my everyday life. I like to post strange quotes that come to mind or that I hear on TV (my favorites are MASH's Frank Burns quotes). Facebook has helped me reconnect with cousins I'd lost contact with over the years and I get a glimpse into the lives of my four nieces. It's also great for keeping my family and friends updated on my travels.

One of the best things about Facebook though is connecting with family members who I never knew existed. Almost three years ago I connected with a cousin in Denmark. We're 2nd cousins once removed, a fairly close relationship but our families were separated by war, time and distances. Earlier this year we met for the first time when I visited Denmark. Two days ago I noticed someone from Israel in a Facebook research group with a surname that is in my family tree. It's not a common surname, plus she was asking the group about the townlet of Zalesie (near Lukow), Poland (see ). What are the odds of someone having that surname and asking about this town so tiny that it doesn't show up on some maps? Well, it turns out that we're 5th cousins once removed. Not a close relationship and the family ties were probably severed by the 1870s when my ancestors was moving east across Poland to new lives in larger cities while her ancestors stayed in Zalesie and Lukow.

We just had a two-hour Skype call, sharing personal info and details about our ancestors. It's the first of many exchanges I hope. With my research slowing as I'm running into the end of available records in the Old Country these major advances are few and far between. I'll take them wherever I can, even Facebook.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Trying to Make a 50-year Leap

Update Sept. 14, 2012: A few weeks ago I established contact with Berko Last's family thanks to a research group on Facebook. While many members of this family died in and around Lukow during WWII, several family members did survive the war to emigrate to Israel. Berko aka Berek died in Israel in 1983. The I. Last also mentioned below survived. The initial "I" stands for Icko or Isser. Most of the survivors were men so the Last surname has lived on.

A few months ago I discovered a record for a likely ancestor on the Polish War Victims website at . The record, contributed to the database by the Polish Red Cross, is regarding Berko LAST of the townlet Zalesie, born March 2, 1915. There are many towns and villages in Poland named Zalesie (see my earlier blog post). This one is located near the city of Lukow and all events such as births, marriages, and deaths taking place in Zalesie were recorded in Lukow.

My 3rd great grandfather Szymon Wolf LAST and his 2 brothers were born in Zalesie between 1837 and 1851. In 1858, Szymon Wolf married Sura Grynberg of Miedzyrzec Podlaski. The wedding took place in Lukow. By the time my 2nd great grandmother Marjem Szprinca was born in 1863, they were living in Miedzyrzec. Szymon Wolf and his father Jankiel were shoemakers, as were other men in the family, some of whom stayed in Zalesie. The 1929 Polish Business Directory shows an I. LAST, shoemaker, in Zalesie. I have in my possession all of the surviving BMD records for these towns showing the surname LAST. There are parellel branches also originating from Zalesie that I can't quite link to my branch. The connection might be just one more generation back in time.

Anyway, there is a good chance that Berko LAST is related to I. Last. The initial "I" might stand for Icko which is a name I see in a parallel branch. I e-mailed the Polish Red Cross twice with no response so my researcher in Poland contacted them for me. I expected the Berko LAST record to be a record of his death so I thought we would be able to get a copy. It turns out that the source is a 1946 court record regarding Berko...and his siblings! 1946!!! Survivors of the war!!! My researcher was told that Berko's 1915 birth wasn't recorded at that time and it is this court record that officially records it. I got the impression that the court record mentions their parents names. The problem is that I can't get any more information regarding that court record until I can prove the family connection because of the privacy laws. So, this is my problem. I have to make a leap from the 1890s to 1946 while trying to maneuver around privacy laws.

I contacted the Siedlce branch of the Polish State Archives to search that first decade of the 20th century. They only had records through 1907 and returned 2 records in their search results. It wasn't until after I paid them that I found out that the records show the surname LIUST, which is LUST, a completely different surname from LAST. I know this because I also have in my possession every surviving 19th century BMD record mentioning the name LUST, none of which have ties to Zalesie. There isn't a single instance of overlap, spelling change, or transcription error. They are completely different families. The archivist has agreed to search some other 20th century records, 1 hour's search time, to make up for this goof on their part (they don't see it as a mistake but I'll take the hour).

My question is, are there any 20th century Polish records that might help me bridge this gap? Zalesie is so tiny that if I can at least link Berko to any of the LAST records I have, even that parallel branch, I can be 99.9% certain that he is related and maybe we can get that court record released, or at least an extract of the pertinent information it contains. Of course I don't know what happened to him and his siblings after 1946. Did they stay in Poland? I don't see them on the US passenger lists after the war (on What happened to I. LAST the shoemaker?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.